The pre-class rush is upon me, complete with additional deadlines for articles in various editorial stages, and so I haven’t been posting much. Although to be honest perhaps the largest reason for my silence is how gun shy I am about posting about Yali given how I’m the token Melanesianist on SM. Anyway, since many of us will begin teaching again, perhaps a quick post on pedagogy will touch on something that is on the minds of those revising syllabi and preparing for the fall.
I had the experience of a superb undergraduate education at a liberal arts college which allowed me to con my way into a Major Research University where there were practically no teaching opportunities and the faculty was very focused on developng grad students but paid scant attention to undergrads (this is making a long story short — I’m not knocking the college at my alma mater) or teaching graduate students to teach them. As a result I’ve been furiously reading through the literature on what makes a good teacher, subscribing to email lists, developing my own sense of pedagogy, and focusing on improving my teaching with the zeal of a convert.
So far I’ve conluded that the ‘mirrors for princes’ genre is pretty hit or miss when the prince in question is a college professor. I do have my favorites — Maryellen Weimer’s Improving Your Classroom Teaching and Gerald Graff’s Clueless in Academe among them — but a friend of mine who recently won a teaching award recommended The Sociology of Teaching by Willard Wallard. This weighty 1932 tome reads like the Annee Sociologique running berserk through the ethnographic richness of an American highschool. Chapter XXI, “The Battle of the Requirements” includes sections entitled “Cribbing,” “‘chiselling’,” “Responsive attitude as a technique of chiselling,” “play of social forces upon requirements,” and so forth. It has Mauss’s sensibility, but it’s as if Weber edited all the joie de vivre out of the manuscript. Thus in Chapter XXV — “Traits Determining The Prestige Of The Teacher” — we get entries on “stable domination,” “relationship of container and contained,” “institutionalized courage,” and, my favorites, “teaching mask,” “synthetic smile,” “wan smile,” and “the grim smile.” The last deserves quotation in full:
Those who live by controlling others must take thought even of their laughter. There are some teachers who think that they should never smile. They may be right, for where the moral order is frankly imposed upon students from without they will welcome any show of relaxation on the part of the imposing agent as an opportunity to break through. Sometimes teachers compromise by acknowledging the ridiculous with the grim smile, which does not simply mean, “I am a fellow human being and like you I find some things amusing,” but says rather “I am of course the teacher. But I am willing to admit that this is amusing. But do not forget that I am still the teacher.” … In this there is no artificiality, but the frankly ambivalent expression of both amusement and the desire to maintain order. This compromise of authority and friendliness is for many teachers, for all those who have not learned how to get the classroom situation back under their control at once after they have allowed it to take its own natural course for a while, the best compromise for classroom purposes. It allows students to see that one has a sense of humor, or that he is friendly, but it does not open the gates.